Shawn Thornton was always considered one of the really good bad guys.
His role is that of enforcer. Fight for those who won't or can't and ensure that no one gets away with a cheap shot, questionable hit or basic hockey intimidation.
During the fight you'll notice Thornton, 6-2, level several head shots down upon Cooke, 5-11, while Cooke is sprawled on the ice. If there was ever a time to pound someone when he was down, it occurred on March 18, 2010 in Boston. Thornton forced Cooke to answer for his hit on Savard 11 days earlier that all but ended Savard's career. Cooke never apologized for his shoulder-to-the-head attempted decapitation of Savard. He was not penalized on the play but the NHL subsequently adopted Rule 48 to mitigate similar shots to the head.
Cooke finally apologized for his headhunting after his fifth career suspension, which game after he elbowed Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head during the 2011 season. He has since mended his ways, although his nomination for the Masterton Award earned him a comparison to Sirhan Sirhan courtesy of NESN's Jack Edwards in April. The usually brilliant Edwards quickly apologized for his verbal absurdity, but the irony of Cooke being nominated for a league award that honors clean play and sportsmanship was self evident.
Thornton will be suspended for at least six games after he took down Brooks Orpik from behind, dropped him down to the ice and hit him in the head multiple times and left him unconscious. Orpik was wheeled off the ice in a stretcher. Thornton's reaction was purportedly in response to an earlier hit delivered by Orpik on Loui Eriksson, which was not penalized.
There's a feeling of "frontier justice" any hockey fan feels while watching that 2010 clip of Thornton go after Cooke. That was old-time hockey fighting at its best. Cooke took out Savard, a guy who was one of Boston's top skill players, showed no remorse for what he did to Savard and was facing the dire consequences. It didn't change Cooke's behavior or magically heal Savard. But this type of payback is part of hockey and shows the upside of allowing the players to police themselves.
Fast forward to Saturday night. Thornton was doing the same thing, in theory. He was attempting to dispense hockey justice, given what Orpik had done to Thornton's offensive-minded teammate.
But it wasn't the same thing.
Not by a
long cheap shot.
Thornton is Boston's thug now.
He morphed from the righteous Thor to the sinister Loki right before our eyes.
It was, as Edwards noted, a scene eerily similar to the situation in Montreal when Johnny Boychuk took a head-first ride into the boards courtesy of an elevated backside elbow from Max Pacioretty last Thursday night.
Except this time, the bad guy was wearing Bruins' Black and Gold.
"That's not a fight. That's not a fight. That's not two guys dropping their gloves and going. I'm really upset," Don Cherry said during a Coach's Corner segment of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. Cherry's Bruins never shied away from a good brawl, or any form of hockey justice that involved major penalties for fighting.
Cherry, who naturally said he was friends with both Thornton and Orpik, apologized multiple times for even having to air tape of the hit[s].
This time, it was Thornton who incurred the wrath of Grapes.
Cherry, to no one's surprise, believes fighting has a place in the game. In the right place at the right time, a well-staged hockey fight provides an outlet for the combatants, a system of checks and balances for the players and some memorable moments for fans. Hockey fans aren't a blood thirsty lot. The sport is built around hard contact. But fighting is only allowed in the North American pro ranks. High school, college or Olympic hockey players get tossed immediately for dropping the gloves. Penalties are assessed, suspensions and disqualifications are given. Same holds true in Europe.
Cherry's point about what happened with Thornton and Orpik not being a fight is the big-picture point here. Hockey fights always end when one of the combatants is out on the ice. Saturday's demonstration of punishment and brutality by Thornton was something, but it wasn't a hockey fight.
"Bruins are lying all over the place and Thornton has gone bananas," Cherry said. He was referencing James Neal taking his knee to the head of Brad Marchand. Neal was suspended for five games after his hit.
Thornton will likely miss at least twice as many games.
This was unseemly, to put it mildly. Watching Thornton fire away at the defenseless, down and eventually out Orpik, was an other-worldly experience, especially considering both the reputation Thornton has/had for being a virtuous villain and the fact that Thornton had never been suspended in his career. Orpik deserved punishment, if for anything his cowardice in not wanting to fight in the first place, but this crossed the line and broke "The Code." It wasn't a hockey fight but rather the final seconds of a lopsided UFC one-sided beatdown before the ref steps in to call it.
Thornton spoke remorsefully after the game and apologized several times to reporters. He said he felt "awful" at least three times.
"Obviously, I made a mistake ... I feel awful and felt sick all game," Thornton said. "That's always my job, I guess, to defend my teammates, but I've prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines, and like I said, it's hard for me to talk about right now. I can't say I'm sorry enough, and I'm sure I'll be criticized for saying it, but it's true."
The big issue for Thornton now is where does he goes from here in his career. It took Cooke five suspensions and genuine ill-will from players across the league to [we've been told] change his ways and try to mend his reputation as a cheap-shot artist and thug.
Thornton's reputation and conscience were both clean before his outburst/attack/assault Saturday. His reputation is longer sterling, but it's hardly lost. Thornton's apology appeared sincere. That and his past record could mitigate his time away from the ice, but so will Orpik's condition.
There's no way a reasonable observer can anything justifiable in Thornton's continual pummeling of Orpik.
Thornton is not going to develop new hockey skills or talents overnight. He is what he is, to paraphrase Bill Parcells and so many others. That would be a 36-year-old, back-line winger who has 10.51 penalty minutes for each point in his career [873 to 83]. Thornton will have plenty of time to contemplate his assault on Orpik. When he does come back, he can't be afraid or unwilling to drop his gloves when warranted. If he's unable or unwilling to resume his "enforcer" role, his usefulness on this team will diminish and his place on the roster will likely go to someone else.
Someone who will be an "enforcer" without crossing the line to assassin, thug or hit-man.
Exactly the type of player Thornton was until Saturday night.
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